The New King of Hipster Beer Is Here
She tapped the (probably fake) silver of her many rings against the (probably fake) reclaimed-wood bar. Her voice as tinny and obnoxious as the Bon Iver playing through the speakers above her head.
"What do you mean you're out of Modelo?" she asked the bartender, leaving him scratching his beanie. Before he could attempt an answer, a barback in a plain white T-shirt slinked in with a pushcart full of the cheap Mexican lager. She squealed with delight and returned to her friends, can in hand
Five years ago, no one in this bar would have given a damn if there was no Modelo. Shit, no one would have probably cared two years ago. Or maybe even six months ago. But the tides have turned. After nearly a decade of elevated, ironic embrace, millennials and cusp Gen X-ers alike have shifted their attention away from their beloved PBR. Even CNN/Money has declared it no longer "hot," the branding equivalent of your Great Aunt Fern calling your haircut lame AF.
And while the word "hipster" is pretty much the last fart of the dying corpse of culture that made PBR trendy again in the first place, it aptly describes the demographic we need to focus on: young, urban, "creative," kind of conceited, possibly you. If you can think of a better name please let me know.
Many cheaper beers have tussled for the title of King of (Hipster) Beers during PBR's transition back to blue-collar favorite. But Modelo is currently sitting on the throne. As a result, the insufferably hip are helping their new tallboy of choice become America's fastest-growing beer. Here's how it (probably) happened.
Why the hell Modelo?
Like Pabst, Modelo is old. Founded in Mexico City in 1925, its owners represent about 63% of the Mexican beer market. It's co-owned by international drink behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev and on the micro-level managed by Constellation Brands (which also manages Corona, another Grupo Modelo product). So it's not some underdog. Modelo's a big-time foreign beer brand. It's -- gasp! -- mainstream lawnmower beer.
It ticks off three boxes to make it a legitimate replacement for PBR among hipsters:
- It tastes OK. Pretty damn good, actually. You can easily drink many. I know this, trust me.
- It's cheap, but not too cheap. And if there's one thing millennials love, it's saving money under the veil of irony.
- It kind of has a foreign mystique. Hipster-folk so enjoy appropriating other cultures.
The tolerable cheapness
One thing that fueled the rise of Pabst is that it's cheap, but not the cheapest. It's trashy, but almost in a funny way. It has this weird, tragically uncool image that just separates it from other low-shelf brands (more on that later).
Modelo is in the same boat. It's not scraping the bottom of the barrel with the 30-racks that cost $9. And Modelo is not one of the big-three macro beers (Miller, Coors Light, Bud) that are usually priced along the same lines. It's a very, very slight aberration from the norm. This is pretty much the level of experimentation every millennial not only craves, but actively seeks. It's low-risk -- an act of slight non-conformity rooted in actually conforming. How ironic!
In a relatively sloppy survey of 10 bars I visited in various Brooklyn neighborhoods -- all of which could feasibly double as "the hipster mecca of the Eastern Seaboard" -- four had Modelo as some sort of special, either paired with a shot, or at a slashed price during happy hour. The average was about $4.50, which is cheap for New York, honestly.
But cheap alone does make a true, bona fide, LaCroix-sippin', fixed-gear-ridin' hipster icon. It needs to have cachet. Sweet, supple, Instagram-ready cachet.
Hipsters love gentrifying everything… even beer
While the adoration of apparently hip 20-somethings only lifts Modelo's profile, the real root of the beer's overall success is the ever-growing Mexican population in the United States, which lent legitimacy to a recent ad campaign calling it "America's fastest-growing beer." The Mexican beer would have never found its way into the hands of hipsters if it wasn't popularized by Mexicans living in the States first.
The Hispanic population in the US has grown to nearly 50 million people (roughly 16% of our current population), and this surge in consumers familiar with -- and drawn to -- international brands is a big reason for their growing and continued success in American markets.
As Latino culture quickly becomes infused with American traditions, it's no surprise brands like Modelo -- and other Mexican beers like Tecate and Pacifico -- have become usual suspects on "fastest-growing beer" lists. As a beer that continues to skyrocket up the sales chart, it has become increasingly stocked in bars, bodegas, and supermarkets, particularly in places with large Latino populations. Which also happen to be cities that contain high concentrations of young adults trying desperately to be cool.
Ten years ago, you'd see Mexican cooks double-fisting cans of Modelo in the back of kitchens after long shifts. Now people sip it as an after-dinner drink at upscale speakeasies and gastropubs. The back-of-house beer is now on the specials board up front.
Let's be real: Hipsters probably didn't gravitate toward the lager because Mexican cooks love it. But the fact that it has a slight (VERY slight) tinge of exoticism definitely hasn't hurt. It's something that existed before it became a trend. That kind of legacy without oversaturation gives a brand legitimacy, especially with an image-obsessed culture.
It's different. It's from another country. That’s enough to get most millennials to switch the dial.
Its popularity will inevitably lead to its downfall
Alas, seasons change and the whims of millennials are as fickle as the dead leaves on the pavement in front of your favorite artisanal Poké-gym (remember those?). And as Modelo continues to skyrocket in popularity, its appeal will surely wane. It's the hipster circle of life.
Don't be surprised to read about the Modelo/hipster trend piece in the NY Times in the coming years, which is the nail in the cachet coffin. Everything that’s cool will one day fade away, as Neil Young kind of said once. Popularity is a double-edged sword of hops and happy hours.
But with a Latino population that is not slowing down and a parent company focused on pushing the name to every football-lovin' household in Middle America and beyond, Modelo's dominance of the beer market shouldn't dwindle anytime soon. Like PBR, it'll become the norm, the mainstay, a drink to be replaced by something else slightly mysterious and novel and cheap. Zima maybe? A guy can dream.
When that happens, you can always say that you liked it before it was cool. And isn’t that what really matters?
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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He actually blames Gwyneth Paltrow for most of the world's problems. Follow him @wilfulton.